Easy on the eye and easier to drive
26 October 2004

Life’s turned tough for Alfa’s 147 in recent months. The coming of affordable rival prestige models like BMW’s 1-series and Audi’s A3 Sportback draws attention to a fast-growing niche within the family car sector, but also applies the blowtorch to Alfa’s four-year old hatchback.

The Italian response is a Giugiaro facelift that brings the revised model more into line with Alfa’s new family face, and thorough (if subtle) modifications to improve refinement, comfort and performance. Facelifting any good-looking car is never easy. Is the new model, with its bigger, lower grille, elongated headlights, sharper edges, and longer tail lights on a rounded tailgate, more attractive? Given Alfa’s desire to give the 147 a visual connection with next year’s 156 replacement, this is not just change for its own sake, but it lacks the original’s cohesive style.

We tried three engines, three gearboxes and both suspensions – the 147 offers plenty of choice – and happily report that Alfa’s so-called ‘Comfort’ suspension option, currently standard on the now upgraded (to 148bhp) 1.9-litre JTD, brings a noticeable improvement in ride without detracting from the handling. 

The engineers have left the springs and anti-roll bars alone, and there’s no change in the ride height, but they’ve swapped to softer, low-friction dampers. The change increases roll speed, but the suspension’s greater ability to soak up bumps means the 147 can now be driven harder on patchy roads. I’m not saying the Alfa now rides with the composure of the new Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf – it doesn’t – but it’s less fidgety, especially over lateral ridges, and more poised. And all without increasing understeer.

Alfa’s obsession with robotised manual gearboxes continues. The latest iteration is called Easyspeed, and instead of steering-wheel paddles it is operated by a tall gearlever with a clearly defined gate. Neutral and reverse are on one plane, while up and down through the gears is on another. Pushing the lever to the far left switches between automatic and manual modes.

A Sport button speeds up shifts and holds the gears until higher revs. It’s the best version of the system yet, and changes to the software and the five-speed gearbox’s internals mean it has cured some of the Selespeed’s slow-shifting character. If the ’box is reliable this could be a viable alternative to a conventional manual ’box in an Alfa Romeo. But just to confuse buyers, the paddle-operated Selespeed continues.

Somewhat surprisingly, the 147 does without the 162bhp JTS direct-injection petrol engine, offered on the GT and 156 – it’s too expensive to produce. Good thing, too, for the 148bhp Twin Spark is more responsive across the entire rev range and deliciously eager to spin out to the 7000rpm red line. If you want real grunt, combined with economy, however, opt for the four-valve JTD. Having driven it over the course of a couple of days, the engine is even more impressive than BMW’s 148bhp 2.0 diesel. Brilliant, and noticeably quieter in the new car.

Over 70 per cent of UK buyers choose the 147 for its styling. That’s not going to change, but now they’re getting a more rounded and refined car that clearly benefits from the many subtle modifications.

Peter Robinson

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